Football: Brave Spurs finished off by Beckham

Manchester United 2 Tottenham Hotspur 0
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The Independent Online
The two most successful clubs in FA Cup history contrived a largely anticlimactic tie at Old Trafford yesterday, although the vast majority of the 52,495 crowd were hardly complaining.

Manchester United, who have won the trophy on a record nine occasions, launched their campaign to reach an unprecedented fourth successive final by maintaining their modern ascendancy over Tottenham, themselves eight- times winners. Paul Scholes broke Spurs' spirited resistance early in the second half, and David Beckham sealed victory for the holders with a cunningly flighted free-kick in the closing stages.

The outcome means that United have now lost only once to Spurs in 14 matches, and remain unbeaten in the third round since Ron Atkinson's team bowed out at Bournemouth 13 winters ago.

For long periods it looked as if the result might add to another statistical sequence - five of the previous seven meetings in the Cup had gone to a replay - but Spurs' patched-up side could not sustain their first-half resilience.

Despite being without Sheringham, Armstrong, Scales, Anderton, Mabbutt and Iversen, Gerry Francis still managed to put together a "Spurs XI" which could afford to leave the experience of Clive Wilson and Ruel Fox on the bench. Before Scholes' goal changed the course of the game they proved an obdurate match for the Double winners.

The problems for Alex Ferguson seemed to have been compounded by his decision to give Andy Cole a first starting role since the final at Wembley last May. Cole's prolonged absence has done nothing for his understanding with Eric Cantona, who was conspicuously disinclined to pass to Ole Solskjaer's replacement.

As a result, the bombardment anticipated by Ian Walker, who had conceded seven at Newcastle in Spurs' last away fixture, never materialised.

Francis's resources were so stretched that he had to field two 19-year- old strikers. Neale Fenn, on his full debut, and Rory Allen showed immense promise and no little panache on the ball, if little in the way of penetration. For all Spurs' superiority in terms of possession during the first half, United made the better openings.

Ryan Giggs ought to have put them ahead after 26 minutes. Arriving to meet Beckham's first-time cross, he sent his free header too close to Walker. From Cantona's corner, Giggs also got his forehead to the ball but the keeper again parried.

The United manager showed his concern at the way Spurs were dictating the tempo by switching Beckham inside from his post on the right flank. Roy Keane, having clattered recklessly into Allan Nielsen and Justin Edinburgh in quick succession, was perhaps fortunate not to leave United facing an hour with only 10 men. He was cautioned, though had the challenges been 10 minutes apart the card might have been red.

As George Best made a half-time presentation, one restless supporter shouted: "Get a red shirt on, Georgie." Spurs' 6,000 travelling fans certainly greeted their players with greater enthusiasm as the sides re-emerged, yet their optimism was soon punctured.

Cole, allowed to run at a retreating defence after Nielsen had lost possession, swapped passes with Beckham before selflessly picking out Scholes' run to his left. A clinical finish, directed beyond Walker with his left foot from 14 yards, was a reminder of the midfielder's origins as a striker.

Nevertheless, Spurs could have drawn level immediately. Fenn's cross gave Allen a chance for glory at the back post, but his composure deserted him and he blazed badly wide.

With Keane making the most of his reprieve, United finished much the stronger team and created more opportunities in the final 15 minutes than both teams had in the previous 75. Cole, without a home goal since the end of 1995, rounded Walker before Dean Austin forced him wide; Walker saved brilliantly from a Scholes volley, while Cantona and Giggs both saw shots flash within a foot of goal.

It was left to Beckham, born and bred in the Tottenham heartland, to finish off Spurs. Colin Calderwood's cynical trip on Giggs might have earned him a yellow card had the referee not already booked him, but Beckham was to inflict a more painful penalty by far. Lifting the free-kick over the defensive wall, he bent it into the right-hand corner of Walker's net from 25 yards.

For United, the result was all. Spurs may have regained lost pride, but that will be cold comfort for Francis and the White Hart Lane faithful, who have little more to look forward to over the next five months than an outside chance of scraping into Europe.

Goals: Scholes (51) 1-0; Beckham (82) 2-0.

Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Schmeichel; G Neville, May, Johnsen, Irwin; (McClair, 52); Beckham, Keane, Scholes, Giggs; Cantona; Cole (Solskjaer, 78), Substitute not used: Van der Gouw (gk).

Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2): Walker; Austin, Calderwood, Campbell, Edinburgh; Carr, Nielsen, Howells, Sinton; Allen, Fenn. Substitutes not used: Fox, Wilson, Brown (gk).

Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).

Bookings: Manchester United Keane, Cole, Johnsen; Tottenham Calderwood, Allen, Austin.

Man of the match: Keane.

Attendance: 52,495.